During the first and second year of your Ph. D, you will take two qualifying exams. Qualifying exams prepare the candidate for teaching, not only in his/her area of specialization, but as broadly as possible, especially for the survey courses that most faculty are required to teach at some point in their careers. For candidates not planning to enter the academy as teachers and researchers, the exams offer invaluable practice in the arts of acquiring a large and complex body of knowledge, synthesizing of information, communicating that information, and managing time.
In January of the PhD candidate’s first year of study, he/she will declare a secondary field; the primary field of interest will be declared no later than the following June. These fields will normally be taken from the following fourteen areas (clicking on each link will take you to that field's general reading list in PDF ):
Old and Middle English Language and Literature;
English Drama to the Restoration;
Renaissance Non-Dramatic Literature;
Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Literature;
Nineteenth-Century British Literature (Victorian Supplemental, Romantics Supplemental);
Twentieth-Century British and Irish Literature;
Literary Criticism and Theory;
Women’s Literature and Gender Studies;
Indigenous Literature and Literary Criticism/Theory.
* Please note that Textual Studies may only be chosen as a secondary field.
Download the list of 2017-18 Qualifying Examination Committees.
Each examination is drawn up, graded, and examined orally (where applicable) by an Examining Committee of three faculty members (with the exception of the nineteenth-century, which usually has 4), one of whom is designated the chair and through whom all inquiries should be directed. The general/secondary reading lists for each of these fields is available from the Graduate Assistant. Candidates are also permitted to see select previous exams in order to get a clearer sense of what is usually required. These exams can be viewed in the Graduate Assistant’s office.
Ph. D. candidates whose research is located in a field that crosses between the categories on the list above, or that is not included in them, may propose a special field for the Primary Field Examination. Students who propose a special field are responsible for selecting the three faculty members who will constitute the examining committee and for obtaining their agreement, and, in consultation with the proposed examining committee, for compiling the list of works to be covered in the examination. This list should be comparable in length, breadth, and depth to the lists approved by the Department for the Primary Field Examination in the regular fields listed above. Special fields will not be permitted for the Secondary Field Examination.
Students wishing to propose a special field for the Primary Field Examination must inform the Chair of Graduate studies before Reading Week in their second term of doctoral study. They must obtain the consent of their three proposed examiners, and the proposed special field together with the list of examiners must be submitted to the Committee on Graduate Studies no later than June 15 of the first year of doctoral study. The list of works to be covered by the special field examination should be assembled in consultation with the examining committee and must be submitted for their final approval and that of the Committee on Graduate Studies no later than November 15 of the second year of doctoral study.
All qualifying exams are four hours in length. Exams are normally written on computers, although candidates are allowed to write by hand, should they choose. Faculty proctors will oversee the examination, and will gather up all exams at the end of the exam period.
There are two Qualifying Exams:
▪ Secondary Field examination (written only)
▪ Primary Field examination (written exam followed by an oral exam approximately one week later)
The examinations will be held on a stated day in May; in case of deferral or re-sitting there will be a makeup date in September. Candidates who defer an exam will be required to take it at the next sitting. Deferrals will be granted only on compelling medical or compassionate grounds (and with supporting documentation, where applicable). Requests for deferrals should be made to the Chair of Graduate Studies in English.
A student must undertake the written secondary, written primary, and oral primary examinations no later than May of the second year in the program, except in cases of deferrals on medical or compassionate grounds.
Descriptions of Exams:
1. Secondary Field Examination:
In January of the candidate’s first year of the program, all qualifying students will meet with their Examining Committee to discuss the format of the May exam and to clarify any matters pertaining to the writing of the exam. Candidates will obtain a reading list for the chosen secondary field from the Graduate Assistant (AHB 2G02B).
If applicable, candidates will draw up an individual list based on the general list in their field and forward it to the examining committee by 1 February for approval. Approval or minor suggestions for revision will be provided in writing.
In May of the first year of doctoral studies, all students will write the qualifying exam for the secondary field. Exams will be graded by the Examination Committee for each area, and the grade will be conveyed to the student. The exams are graded on the basis of “Pass,” “Fail,” or “Pass with Distinction,” which is what will be recorded on the transcript.
2. Primary Field Examination:
Once the doctoral candidate has passed the Secondary Field Examination, he/she will move on to the Primary Field examination. The Primary Field examination will test the candidate’s broad knowledge in the field in which his or her thesis research is to take place; it will indicate that s/he is “qualified” to write the dissertation. As with the Secondary Field examination, candidates will normally obtain a general reading list for their chosen primary field from the Graduate Assistant. The reading list will serve as the base upon which the student will develop his/her final list for the exam during the summer before the second year of study. Students writing the Primary Field exam in a special field should use the existing lists as a model for their special list, and may wish to include works on their list from one or more of the existing lists. In September of the second year of the doctoral program, all students sitting the Primary Field in the coming May will meet with their Examining Committees to discuss the format of the exam, to clarify any matters pertaining to the writing of the exam, and to finalize the list of works on which they will be examined. Expansion and fine-tuning of the Primary Field reading list must be done in consultation with the members of the Examining Committee for that area, and when the Committee has given final approval to that list, its Chair will forward it to the Chair of Graduate Studies in English for the approval of the Committee on Graduate Studies. Lists should be communicated to the CGS by 1 November (if writing in May) or 1 July (if writing in September). Earlier submissions are encouraged. Templates are available from the Graduate Assistant.
The written Primary Field examination will be followed approximately one week later by an oral examination, lasting one to two hours. Like the written exam, the oral exam will test the candidate's broad knowledge of his or her chosen Primary Field. Questions (to be based on both the general reading list and the expanded reading list) might invite a candidate to elaborate on his or her written answers, and might also test a candidate's knowledge of texts that she or he chose not to write about in the written Primary Field exam. All three of these exams--the written Secondary Field, the written Primary Field, and the oral Primary Field--are graded "Pass," "Fail" or "Distinction" on the transcript. Students must pass both the written and oral Primary Field examinations in order to progress in the program.
Normally, a student who fails the qualifying exam will be re-examined by the same committee.
Failing Results and the Results of Failing
1. Secondary Field Examination
If a student fails the Secondary Field examination at the first sitting, the committee for that examination, through its chair, may request the Committee on Graduate Studies to set an exam at the next sitting for a make-up examination. A student who fails the Secondary Field examination on the second sitting will be required to withdraw from the program.
2. Primary Field Examination
If a student fails the Primary Field examination at the first sitting, either in its written or its oral component, the committee for that examination, through its chair, may request the Committee on Graduate Studies to set an exam at the next sitting. Only the failed portion of the Primary Field exam would be re-taken in that sitting, which is to say, failure on the oral component in the exam will require a retaking of the oral only, not the written. A student who fails the written Primary Field examination on the second sitting will be required to withdraw from the program. A student who fails the oral Primary Field examination on a second sitting will be required to withdraw from the program.